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UNRWA asks for EU funds to maintain lifesaving aid delivery

Bernd Riegert in Brussels
February 12, 2024

The head of the UN's Palestinian relief agency, UNRWA, is in Brussels on Monday to ask for funding to continue its operations. Several countries have suspended their contributions following allegations of terrorism.

A young girl in a pink top is seen handing a blue tupperware box over a wall to a waiting hand, amid a countless other hands holding metal pots and plastic containers.
UNRWA, which is feeding an estimated 2 million people, has said its resources may run out by the end of this monthImage: Hatem Ali/AP Photo/picture alliance

Two days before UNRWA Secretary-General Philippe Lazzarini was due to meet the EU development ministers in Brussels, the Israeli army once again made serious accusations against the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA): The Israel Defense Forces said on Saturday they had found a tunnel under the UN organization's headquarters in the Gaza Strip, which Hamas had used for intelligence activities. The militant Islamist Palestinian organization Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the EU, the USA and other states.

The UNRWA chief denied knowledge of this tunnel or its supply of electricity from the headquarters. He also said that the UNRWA building had not been used since October 12, shortly after the Hamas terror attack on Israel on October 7. Israel's Foreign Minister, Israel Katz, called for Lazzarini's resignation.

When Lazzarini was in Brussels a year ago to ask for funding for the organization, his request was well-received. But Monday's meeting is likely to be very different.

Lazzarini will now have to answer critical questions not only about newly-found tunnel, but also the alleged collaboration of UNRWA employees with Hamas. Israeli intelligence claims that 12 of UNRWA's estimated 13,000 employees were involved in the Hamas-led attacks in Israel on October 7.

Following Israel's allegations, the UN immediately fired nine of those accused, reporting that two of those singled out were deceased and that the whereabouts of the remaining individual were unknown. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ordered an internal investigation, currently ongoing, which has been tasked with identifying all those responsible.

A man carrying two large white sacks on his shoulder. They are labelled, in blue, "UNRWA wheat flour (not for sale)"
The UNRWA has been supporting Palestinians with relief aid, medical and education services for 75 yearsImage: Abed Rahim Khatib/AA/picture alliance

Israeli officials have further claimed that some 10% of UNRWA staff have connections to Hamas, but have so far failed to provide any evidence.

Germany among states to suspend aid

The allegations have prompted several EU member states, including Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, to suspend their UNRWA payments pending the outcome of investigations. 

Other EU members, such as Ireland and Belgium, intend to continue sending funds. Spain has increased contributions by €3.5 million ($3.8 million), to provide more humanitarian aid to the population of the besieged Gaza Strip. Portugal also intends to send more funds than it has in the past.

Without continued contributions, it's estimated UNRWA won't be able to continue its lifesaving work for displaced Palestinians in Gaza for longer than a few weeks. At least 27,000 Palestinians have been killed and 1.9 million displaced since Israel launched its offensive there in October, according to figures from the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

UNRWA funding exit is 'collective punishment'

Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, has said the EU is currently not making payments because none are due before the end of this month. By then, he hopes an internal financial review by the EU will have determined whether funds had in fact been channeled to terrorist activities, and whether cooperation with UNRWA can continue.

A probe in November on similar charges found that no EU money had been diverted to Hamas. Borrell also said he regretted the lack of unity in the EU's stance toward UNRWA.

'No substitute for UNRWA'

Following a recent informal meeting with EU foreign ministers, Borrell stressed that payments to support Palestinians in Gaza had to continue.

Josep Borrell in a dark suit, speaking, right hand raised.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has said UNRWA plays a 'critical role' in distributing humanitarian aid in the Middle EastImage: Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS

"Certainly, we will ask for reviews, we will ask for controls, [about] the lack of accountability, but I can say that, for the majority of member states, the general feeling is that there is no substitute for UNRWA. I repeat: There is no substitute for UNRWA," he said on February 3.

Borrell estimated that the Palestinian relief agency was feeding around 2 million people — not only in the Gaza Strip, but also in the occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. It also provides medical and education services to some 5.9 million forcibly displaced Palestinian refugees.

"Who can substitute that overnight?" said Borrell. "UNRWA is playing a critical role. It is true that the Israeli government has been very critical of UNRWA — not [only] now, many times before — but we cannot punish 2 million people."

UNRWA chief Lazzarini has called the withdrawal of funds an "additional collective punishment."

'We will have to help': German development minister

After the US, Germany was the world's second-largest donor to UNRWA. In 2022, it contributed $202 million. The United States, which contributed $344 million in 2022, has also suspended its payments. In the same time period, the European Union sent $114 million from its common fund, to which all member states contribute.

Families worst hit by Gaza food shortages

In light of recent allegations, Japan, Switzerland, the UK, Canada and others have also suspended their payments, or placed them under review. A total of 20 countries worldwide have responded similarly.

Svenja Schulze, Germany's minister for development aid, expects UNRWA funding to continue once the investigation has been concluded and the accusations addressed.

"I cannot imagine that we would stop providing support, with all the suffering and distress there is currently in the region," Schulze told the German television news outlet ntv in January.

"We will have to help there. It's in Israel's interest, too, for the people in this region to get help."

UNRWA's work at imminent risk

In a press release on February 1, UNRWA warned that, if funding remains suspended, it will be unable to continue providing aid to people in Gaza.

The relief agency is not funded from the regular UN budget, but relies on annual donations. It was formed in 1949 to offer aid to the more than 750,000 Palestinians who fled their homes or were displaced during or leading up to the conflict surrounding the founding of Israel.

Philippe Lazzarini, speaking, holding up his left hand, against a blue and white background
UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini will meet with EU development ministers on MondayImage: Salvatore Di Nolfi/picture alliance/KEYSTONE

An analysis of the situation on the UNRWA website states: "While UNRWA is accustomed to working amid financial uncertainty, the January developments create a new level of peril. Unless donors resume funding quickly and in full, the agency says, it could run out of resources by the end of February."

This article was originally written in German.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union